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The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty indicates that, on any given day, approximately 840,000 people in the United States are homeless or living in temporary shelters. Approximately 3.5 million people in the United States will meet criteria for homelessness within a given year, and 1.35 million of them are children. It is estimated that 7.4 percent of U.S. residents, or as many as 13.5 million people in the United States, have been homeless at one point in their lives.
The majority of the homeless in urban areas are adult men of minority descent. In rural areas, however, the homeless are more likely to be Caucasian, and their genders and ages are less well known. Across both rural and urban settings, approximately 20 to 25 percent of the homeless adult population suffer from some type of severe and persistent mental illness. Although homelessness has been a historically significant phenomenon in the United States, it still remains difficult to cull reliable and comprehensive data about homeless individuals. Indeed given the difficulty of tracking and finding individuals who are homeless because of the variability in their locations, national data may significantly underestimate the incidence and prevalence of this social condition.
In 1987 the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act marked the first time the U.S. government acknowledged homelessness as a national crisis, despite its prevalence for decades prior to this event. In addition to designating federal money to help research and solve the problem of homelessness, the McKinney Act also provided a clear definition of homeless. According to the legislation, a “homeless” individual is one who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or has a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter, an institution that provides temporary residence for individuals who will be institutionalized, or a public or private place not ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations for human beings.
The term homeless is inapplicable to individuals who are imprisoned or detained under congressional or state law. The concept as understood in the United States is largely based on an individual’s physical living arrangements or accommodations. However, as the literature suggests, this definition may be inadequate and unable to capture the complexity of phenomena internationally. Indeed this U.S. definition of homelessness reduces the concept to an issue of “houselessness,” which is a critical caveat to achieving an international understanding of the phenomenon.
The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) has refined homelessness and developed a more globally appropriate and responsive definition. The center also recognizes that definitions of homelessness vary widely and are influenced by geographic and socioeconomic factors. Most of what is known about homelessness, including an accepted definition of the construct, is based on the limited statistics and information available from European and North American countries and from the developing country of India. From this perspective, commonly held conceptualizations of homelessness include a consideration of social and familial relationships and sociodemographic factors.
Globally it is estimated that between 100 million and one billion individuals are homeless. Notably, however, homelessness data from developing countries are particularly sparse and difficult to collect. Across developed and developing countries, homelessness is often understood through both the narrow lens of accommodations, or lack thereof, and broader perspectives in an effort to inform services and interventions for those affected. For example, while some countries employ a typology based on characteristics of housing quality or on the length of time an individual is homeless, other countries may use a typology based on risk or potential of facing houseless conditions.
There are some emerging cross-cultural categories for understanding homelessness in an international arena. For example, supplementation homelessness, whereby an individual is homeless in response to migration, is quite different from survival homelessness, whereby individuals are homeless because they are searching for improved opportunities. Crisis homelessness, a precipitant of homelessness produced by a crisis (such as a storm, earthquake, or war) is quite different from the previous two. These categories focus more on the etiology for homelessness rather than on factors directly associated with the homeless individuals’ culture, race, or premorbid socioeconomic status.
From a global perspective, much attention is given to homeless children and adolescents, often referred to as street children. It was estimated that there were 100 million street children worldwide in 1992, with 71 million of these children working and living on the streets full-time, 23 million working and living on the streets part-time, and approximately 7 to 8 million abandoned. While street children are considered among the homeless, the literature makes clear distinctions between homeless adults and homeless children. The most accepted definition of a street child is “any girl or boy for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood; and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults” (Glasser 1994, p. 54).
Such a definition addresses characteristics in addition to physical living arrangements with a broader consideration of a child’s basic needs (that is, need for security and socialization). Similar to the various typologies used to understand global homelessness among adults, a typology has been developed by UNICEF that differentiates street children who live at home and those who do not, which is particularly relevant given that the majority of street children have some contact with their families.
Specifically the literature has found that there are experiential differences between street children who are deemed at high risk of homelessness (that is, the child spends some time in the streets), street children who are in the streets (for example, they spend most of their time in the streets, usually working), and street children who are of the streets (that is, the street is the child’s home). As with the typologies used with homeless adults, these categories may be useful in determining the level and the type of services needed.
Homelessness is an international crisis. The understanding of who is most affected and under what conditions as well as the ability to programmatically remediate the social ills that promote this condition are further limited by the national definitions that are often internally valid but not well generalized internationally.
- Edgar, Bill, Joe Doherty, and Amy Mina-Coull. 1999. Services for Homeless People: Innovation and Change in the European Union. Bristol, U.K.: Policy.
- Ennew, Judith, and Brian Milne. 1990. The Next Generation: Lives of Third World Children. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
- Epstein, Irving. 1995. Dependency Served: Rhetorical Assumptions Governing the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Paper delivered at the International Sociological Association Midterm Conference of the Sociology of Education Research Committee, Jerusalem, December 28.
- Glasser, Irene. 1994. Homelessness in Global Perspective. New York: Macmillan.
- Kuhn, Randall, and Dennis P. Culhane. 1998. Applying Cluster Analysis to Test a Typology of Homelessness by Pattern of Shelter Utilization. American Journal of Community Psychology 26: 207–232.
- National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2004. Homelessness in the United States and the Human Right to Housing. National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. http://www.nlchp.org/Pubs/index.cfm?FA=7&TAB=0.
- Speak, Suzanne. 2004. Degrees of Destitution: A Typology of Homelessness in Developing Countries. Housing Studies 19 (3): 465–482.
- Springer, Sabine. 2000. Homelessness: A Proposal for a Global Definition and Classification. Habitat International 24 (4): 475–484.
- United Nations Centre for Human Settlements. 1996. An Urbanizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- S. Conference of Mayors. 2001. A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Mayors.
- S. Conference of Mayors. 2005. A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Mayors. http://www.mayors.org/uscm/hungersurvey/2005/HH2005FI NAL.pdf.
- S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Economic and Community Development. 1996. Rural Homelessness: Focusing on the Needs of the Rural Homeless. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Housing Service, Rural Economic and Community Development.
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